Hot at home, Clemson has a chance to climb higher in ACC standings

Clemson baseball coach Monte Lee (left) leads the Tigers into a pivotal 13-game homestand that will span three ACC series and 23 days. (File photo)

CLEMSON — It was a couple weeks before the start of the regular season, Monte Lee’s first with Clemson, and in the middle of a lengthy interview he took an overarching look at the schedule.

Upon seeing a bunch of bolded opponents (indicating home games) together in the back half of the 2016 slate, Lee nodded and stated in that booming voice of his, “Good. Good.”

At the time, part of the reason Lee had been hired in the first place to replace Hall of Fame coach Jack Leggett was the Tigers’ startling shortcomings at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in recent years. Long a sanctuary for success — from 1987-2006 Clemson compiled a glittering 586-112 home record (84 percent), claiming at least 30 wins nine times over two decades — the Tigers had lost the magic touch.

Clemson was 21-14 at home in 2012, went 22-12 in 2014 and matched the school’s worst winning percentage in 46 seasons inhabiting “the Doug” with a 16-14 mark in 2015, or a victory rate of just 53.3 percent. (The Tigers were 8-7 in 1973.)

So on paper — literally, the sheet of paper in Lee’s hand that February afternoon — the 13-game, 23-day homestand awaiting Clemson didn’t seem like such a lifesaver.

Except it was, to Lee. After a surprise 22-7 start to the season placing the Tigers in the top 25 of all ranking services, Lee was proven almost prophetic when the Tigers found the road rocky, dropping five of six games in consecutive ACC trips to Duke and Louisville.

“It’s so hard to win on the road. You can do whatever you want to do, it’s just tough to win on the road,” Lee said Tuesday. “I knew with the amount of games we played on the road the past couple weeks, it was going to be tough.”

The promising news for Clemson: after blanking Georgia 12-0 to open this 13-game homestand, the Tigers improved to 16-2 at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, already matching last year’s home win total.

“Now we’ve got to gain some ground back,” Lee said. “Looking at the schedule back then, and looking at it now, it couldn’t have come at a better time for us to be coming home.”

By trouncing Georgia by a dozen runs (Clemson’s largest margin of victory since Feb. 21), the Tigers improved to 10-0 in midweek games against the same type of competition that toppled Clemson last season.

“I wouldn’t say it gave us relief,” freshman right fielder Seth Beer said, “but following that weekend we had up at Louisville (getting swept), I think it was a good refresher for us, saying we can play.”

Clemson will try to keep that perfect Monday-through-Thursday record in tact May 4 vs. Furman and May 10-11 vs. the College of Charleston, Lee’s alma mater and former employer.

But the Tigers’ (25-12, 8-10 ACC) climb back toward contention to host one of the NCAA Tournament’s 16 regionals rests on their success the next three weekends against tough customers in Georgia Tech (Friday-Sunday), No. 11 Florida State (April 30-May 2) and No. 14 North Carolina State (May 6-8.)

Historically, the Tigers have bullied those three foes at Doug Kingsmore Stadium: 31-15 vs. the Yellow Jackets, 23-13 vs. the Seminoles and 43-18 vs. the Wolfpack. Their first two league series at home went well, a sweep of Boston College and taking two of three from Pittsburgh for a 5-1 record — vastly improved from Clemson’s 7-7 mark in 2015 and 7-8 in 2014.

“We didn’t get off to the best start last year. This year, we were off to a really good start,” junior catcher Chris Okey said. “We can implement (confidence that) we’re not going to lose very often here. You have to keep that mindset that this is our home turf.”